JACKSON — A settlement has been reached in a racial discrimination lawsuit against a Mississippi Gulf Coast county and its coroner.
David Owens, a lawyer representing six black-owned funeral homes, says Harrison County and its coroner will agree to a written policy to give all the county’s funeral homes an equal chance at county-controlled business and pay $110,000 in damages.
“It’s time to come together so everyone can have an equal opportunity to try to participate in the business,” Owens said.
Tim Holleman, a lawyer representing the Harrison County Board of Supervisors, said the plaintiffs admit there was no finding of racial discrimination against the county coroner, Gary Hargrove. He also said the $110,000 in damages will come from an insurer “to avoid further defense costs only.”
The trial centered on allegations that coroner Hargrove steered county business to two white-owned funeral homes to the detriment of the black-owned funeral homes, alleging federal civil rights and state law violations against a backdrop of a business that remains starkly segregated by race in the Deep South.
Hargrove testified during the trial that he was “colorblind” in his duties. However, the plaintiffs said Hargrove, who is white, acknowledged before the trial that he can’t remember ever sending a white person’s body to one of the county’s six black-owned funeral homes.
The plaintiffs presented evidence showing that of $160,000 the county spent with funeral homes from 2011-16, only $4,000 went to the black-owned funeral homes. Of Harrison County’s roughly 200,000 residents, about 69 percent identify as white and about 24 percent identify as black, according to the most recent Census Bureau estimate.
Owens said the settlement was announced late Thursday in court even while the plaintiffs were still presenting their case. U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett issued an order dismissing the case Friday, writing that that both sides agreed he retained jurisdiction to enforce his order and impose attorney’s fees.
Lawyers for Hargrove didn’t immediately respond late Friday to requests for comment.
Owens said a written policy will govern a rotation of funeral homes that can pick up bodies for the coroner’s office and perform county-paid burials.
One big sticking point in the trial was which funeral home stores bodies that aren’t claimed or are awaiting autopsies. All those bodies have been held in a refrigeration facility designated for county use at one of the white-owned funeral homes. Owens said that for now, that funeral home will continue to store many of the bodies. But he said the county has agreed to explore a neutral location to store bodies, and that funeral homes lacking refrigeration but designated to pick up and store unclaimed bodies will make private arrangements for refrigeration with a facility of their own choosing.
The six black funeral homes had argued that were owed $870,000 in lost profits from 2012 to 2016, mostly because they argued that family members usually let a funeral home that receives a body conduct services. The expert who prepared that estimate had originally put the black funeral homes’ losses at $6.4 million.
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